Women on the Wagon Train

I received a question about women on the Wagon Train a while back.   I am sharing the question and answer with you, dear readers.


Question:  What would a woman wear who arrive via the wagon train and was in the process of settling in the country during that time?

time on the trail was long and hard


Many wagon trains traveled towards the pacific northwest, beginning in the early 1840’s. They were looking for adventure, a better life and some even hoped to hit gold and become rich. However, U.S.Sovereignty over the Oregon Trail, as it was known, was not established until 1846. Early explorers followed the route of fur traders.

The Oregon trail was followed until the Union Pacific constructed a railway along the route, beginning in 1884.

By the end of the 19th Century, the United States had been settled for the most part, and the adventurer spirit changed in other directions.

Most women wore what we think of as Prairie dresses. These dresses were handmade, often from patterns, they created on their own.

They would have bought their clothes or fabric at the market, or if they raised sheep, they may have woven their own cloth and/or spun their own thread. But, it is unlikely they did that while actually traveling on the wagon train. After all, they could either ride in the bumpy wagon or walk.

life on the wagon train was not easy

Fabrics were natural and zippers, snaps, and Velcro had not been invented yet. Buttons were mainly used for decorations. The sewing machine was not invented until 1846 and not in the home until after the end of the American Civil War.

Cotton was a very popular fabric. Women would dye the cotton using berries, stems, leaves, moss, blossoms, fruit pits, nut hulls and anything else they could find in nature.

Most women only had one or two dresses, usually one of which was their Sunday “best”.

The trail was very dusty and many women would fasten their skirts higher to make walking easier. The women also would lean towards darker fabrics so the dirt would not show. Once they arrived at their destination, it was hard back breaking work. Often women helped their husband with building shelter. Even if that was not the case, they were in a makeshift environment or exposed to the elements, where they had to cook, tend to the children and find a nearby creek to gather water for the family and for washing clothes.

The clothing the farmers wore on the TV show,  Little House on the Prairie, is one well-known example of what would have been worn on the trail.





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